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’10 Weeks of Wheat’ in Global Reserves?

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As of late May 2022, 10 weeks of wheat were all that global reserves held, according to a food insecurity expert addressing the UN.

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On May 22 2022, popular posts to r/worldnews and elsewhere carried an alarming claim that only ten weeks of wheat remained in global supply reserves — mostly, but not entirely, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

World has just ten weeks’ worth of wheat left after Ukraine war from worldnews

On May 21 and 22 2022, similar posts appeared on the smaller subreddit r/shortages. A viral May 2022 tweet from user Chuck Callesto made similar claims:

Google Trends showed a marked increase in searches for “world has 10 weeks of wheat,” “wheat shortage,” and “10 weeks of wheat left” for the seven-day period ending May 23 2022. Twitter highlighted the “ten weeks of wheat” discourse as an “event“:

On Fark.com, a May 23 2022 submission linked to a May 21 2022 WTXF article, “World has 10-week supply of wheat, expert tells UN Security Council: ‘This is seismic.'” That article attributed the remarks to Sara Menker, “CEO of Gro Intelligence, a global company that uses artificial intelligence and public and private data to predict food supply trends.”

Menker addressed the United Nations Security Council on May 19 2022, and the UN broadcast a three-hour long meeting on the matter of war and food insecurity. A description on the UN’s video did not single out wheat:

A sharp increase in global food insecurity threatens to destabilize fragile societies and exacerbate armed conflicts and regional instability. The Security Council open debate seeks to identify ways to break the cycle of conflict-driven food insecurity. It provides an opportunity to review and consider ways to mitigate these impacts, including bolstering global food supply in a manner consistent with international trade obligations, promoting compliance with international humanitarian law obligations, and mobilizing resources and collective action to improve food security and resilience, especially in the least developed countries.

Menker was described as the CEO of food supply trend predictor and forecaster Gro Intelligence. On May 19 2022, Gro Intelligence published a transcript (“Gro’s CEO, Sara Menker, Briefs the United Nations Security Council: Conflict and Global Food Security.”)

As was the case in the UN’s excerpt (above), Gro Intelligence did not emphasize wheat in its brief summary of Menker’s remarks. It read:

At the United Nations Security Council’s May 19 [2022] session on conflict and global food security, Gro Intelligence’s CEO, Sara Menker, spoke about the growing global food crisis, the confluence of unprecedented factors contributing to this crisis, and its disproportionate impact on lower-income countries.

Menker began by explaining Gro Intelligence’s mission and reach, adding that she addressed the UN “to share insights from our data, with the underlying hope that all of us here with the power to change the course of history will choose to do so.” She continued by emphasizing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (and previously in 2014) was not the beginning of global food insecurity:

I want to start by explicitly saying that the Russia-Ukraine war did not start the food security crisis. It simply added fuel to a fire that was long burning. A crisis we detected tremors from long before the COVID 19 pandemic exposed the fragility of our supply chains.

I share this because we believe it’s important for you all to understand that even if the war were to end tomorrow, our food security problem isn’t going away anytime soon without concerted action.

Now on to the statistics: Gro Intelligence estimates show that price increases in major food crops year to date has made an additional 400 million people food insecure. There are a few food security statistics shared so I want to define this as the number of people at $3.59 a day. To put this into perspective, that is equivalent to the number of people that China has taken out of poverty in the last 20 years. In five months [in 2022], we have undone 20 years of progress.

Furthermore, our economic shock models show that year to date changes in prices of agricultural products have already affected some economies by three to 5% of their GDP. Countries disproportionately affected are in regions such as North Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and West and Central Asia.

And it can get much worse. Data shows the food security challenges we face will last several years.

There are five major challenges occurring simultaneously that are each individually extraordinary. Lack of fertilizer, climate disruptions, record low inventories in cooking oils, record low inventories of grains, and logistical bottlenecks that have already started to unravel decades of global economic progress.

Without substantial immediate and aggressive coordinated global actions, we stand the risk of an extraordinary amount of both human suffering and economic damage. This isn’t cyclical, this is seismic. It’s a once in a generation occurrence that can dramatically reshape the geopolitical era.

After that, Menker briefly expounded on the five cited crises affecting fertilizer (“prices have nearly tripled year on year and quadrupled over the past two years,”) and cooking oils (“[prices for] traditionally cheap palm oil has nearly tripled in the last two years.”) Under a “Climate” heading, she described extraordinary drought conditions around the world:

Global drought conditions for wheat are the worst in over 20 years around the world. Major bread baskets such as the United States and Brazil, the world’s two largest exporters of agricultural products, are also experiencing extreme droughts. For example, Brazil’s cropland soil moisture is at a 20 year low. Major grain importers in the Middle East and Africa are also experiencing record droughts. Namely, we have both major importers and major exporters experiencing exceptional drought conditions.

Grains were among the five highlighted factors, likely providing the source of the “ten weeks of wheat” headlines. However, Menker bolstered the commentary with compounding factors (like high prices and supply chain issues involving fertilizer), and indicated that similar concerns apply to corn and other grains:

Official government agency estimates from around the world put wheat inventories at 33% of annual consumption. Verifiable data from public and private sources that we as a company organize and then build statistical models to connect the dots between in our platform show that global wheat inventories are in fact closer to 20%, a level not seen since the financial and commodity crisis of 2007 and 2008. We currently only have 10 weeks of global consumption sitting in inventory around the world. Conditions today are worse than those experienced in 2007 and 2008. It is important to note that the lowest grain inventory levels the world has ever seen are now occurring while access to fertilizers is highly constrained, and drought in wheat growing regions around the world is the most extreme it’s been in over 20 years. Similar inventory concerns also apply to corn and other grains. Government estimates are not adding up.

The last of the five “major challenges” (“logistics”) did involve the war in Ukraine. Gro Intelligence emphasized the second paragraph of that section:

Russia and Ukraine used to provide nearly a third of the world’s wheat exports and are in the top five exporters of corn globally. Combined, they used to export 75% of global sunflower oil supplies. All Ukrainian ports remain closed, making it impossible to move any of Ukraine’s harvested grain across its borders. Shifting to rail will move less than 10% of the prewar flow. It’s not enough. Russian exports, which also include fertilizer, are limited because of Black Sea maritime hazards.

Any one of the five things I outlined would be considered a major issue in commodity markets. The five combined are truly unprecedented.

As Menker’s remarks drew to a close, she stated that food is “personal,” while “our agricultural systems are global,” and used grocery prices in the United States as an example:

There is no version of the world where every country has all the natural resources it needs to survive and thrive. One key takeaway from our data is how often we see repeated examples of cause and effect, highlighting surprising connections and interdependencies. For example, in the United States, the most self-sufficient country globally, a consumption-weighted basket of food – a grocery basket – has doubled in price since April of 2020. Price increases were driven by unprecedented demand around the world, which increased alongside climate related supply side shocks. We cannot solve food insecurity on a national scale anywhere.

In that broader context, the “ten weeks of wheat” focus was misleadingly narrow. Menker’s transcribed speech described a global supply chain facing at least five major crises — which together rose to the level of “truly unprecedented.”

A few days before Menker addressed the UN’s Security Council, the New York Times published a May 17 2022 article about global food chain supply problems. Many of the factors she cited were referenced:

“It’s like wildfires in all directions,” said Jayati Ghosh, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “This is much bigger than after the global financial crisis. Everything is stacked against the low- and middle-income countries.”

The most direct repercussions are seen in the rising prices of cooking fuel, fertilizer and staple foods like wheat, disrupting agriculture and threatening nutrition in much of the world.

[…]

More than 14 million people are now on the brink of starvation in the Horn of Africa, according to the International Rescue Committee — the result of a terrible drought combined with the pandemic and shortfalls of grains from Russia and Ukraine. The two countries are collectively the source for one-fourth of the world’s exports of wheat.

Last week [in May 2022], as India banned exports of most of its wheat, concerns deepened. India is the world’s second-largest wheat producer and holds abundant reserves.

On Twitter, crop scientist and agriculture expert Dr. Sarah Taber addressed the viral “10 weeks of wheat” panic in a May 23 2022 tweet:

Prior to that tweet, Taber published a very long and detailed Twitter thread addressing fears about wheat in particular, starting with a tweet clarifying concerns that Ukraine had been removed from the global supply chain entirely:

In threaded tweets, Taber added in part:

Should go without saying that pivoting to high-capacity rail & river exports, while your country is getting bombed to shit, is an impressive logistical feat. Shipping is slowed, yes. But the idea that Ukrainian grain is totally lost to the world is not backed by the facts.

Let me repeat:

Ukraine is on track to ship about 100 million people’s worth of wheat this month, despite being invaded. And they have plans to build out & double that overland/river export capacity.

Meanwhile

-India *has not banned grain exports,* they’re continuing shipments to partner nations.

Are we going to keep having challenges with food supply chain shortages for at least the next few months: yeah.

Rather than drastic shortages, though, I want to emphasize it’s “there’s enough to feed people, but we actually have to think critically about where it goes for once.”

Taber’s thread was informative and worth reading. After describing specific sources of useful data, she added:

In late May 2022, alarming headlines and tweets blared that the world only had “10 weeks of wheat” left in global reserves, predictably kicking up a ton of fearmongering discourse. The claim originated with a May 19 2022 address to the UN Security Council by Gro Intelligence chief executive officer Sara Menker. Menker’s speech was not about ten weeks of wheat left in global stores, but five large challenges affecting the food supply chain — fertilizer, climate change, cooking oil, grains, and logistics. Menker’s detailed commentary was condensed to the “10 weeks of wheat left” headline. Crop scientist Dr. Sarah Taber published a lengthy thread providing context on such claims and the role of incomplete reporting as a major stressor; her commentary received far less traction than fearful headlines.